Toddlers Learn More From People Than From Screens, Research Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study from Vanderbilt University examined how toddlers learn—or don't—from screens.
  • Researchers found that young kids don't learn from screens alone and that in-person interaction with adults is a crucial component of learning.
  • To boost your young child's learning, make time to read, talk, and sing to them, and encourage them to take part in household chores like doing laundry and preparing snacks.

Toddlers and screen time is a contentious topic. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies younger than 18 months get no screen time at all and that children ages 18 to 24 months are exposed only to high-quality digital media in the company of their parent or caregiver.

New research from October 2021 conducted at Vanderbilt University attempted to determine if toddlers actually learn anything from screens. Researchers examined whether toddlers' frequent exposure to taking family "selfie" photos on their parents' smartphones meant they understood how a photograph can represent reality. They compared their research to kids in the 1990s, who didn't understand that a printed photo could depict a real situation, and found that modern-day kids were no different.

The recent study builds on ongoing research from Georgene Troseth, PhD, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, who finds that toddlers do not learn from screens alone, but rather rely on in-person, face-to-face interactions with adults.

All About the Study

Research from the last few decades shows that babies and young children don’t learn very well from media, such as pictures and videos. The new study examined whether toddlers growing up around smartphone photography are more successful in applying information from a photo to a real event, compared to previous generations of children. 

"Visuals are a big part of children's educational media, such as books, apps, and video. Plus, most parents have smartphones, meaning children are frequently exposed to family selfies," says Dr. Troseth. "We wondered whether being exposed to so many instant photos of familiar people, including themselves, would help toddlers use pictures for information."

Georgene Troseth, PhD

All those family selfies did not help children understand how a picture could represent a real situation.

— Georgene Troseth, PhD

In a 1994 study (before the widespread introduction of smartphones), 2-year-old children were challenged to use pictures to solve a problem. They were shown a photo of a piece of furniture, told that a toy was hidden there, then asked to find the toy. But they didn't seem to understand that the photo provided information relevant to their challenge, and didn't use this information to find the toy in an adjoining room.

However, the kids were more successful when they were told verbally where to search for the toy, suggesting that at this young age, they were able to complete the task when they had relevant information.

When the Vanderbilt researchers conducted a similar experiment with a hidden toy, they thought the children's experience of being photographed so often, and looking through the photo library on their parents' phones, might help them realize that pictures sometimes represent reality. But when they were shown pictures on an iPhone or printed pictures in little frames, they did no better than their 1990s counterparts.

"All those family selfies did not help children understand how a picture could represent a real situation," says Dr. Troseth.

As part of the modern experiment, the toddlers helped the researcher take instant smartphone pictures to help someone else find the toy. This helped the children understand that pictures could convey a message.

"Seeing the connection between a picture or other representation, such as a video image, and what it stands for is a first step to becoming a symbolic thinker," Dr. Troseth explains.

What Kids Can Learn From Selfies

Symbolic thinking is a person's ability to think about objects and events that are not within their immediate environment, and it's a key component in the development of a child's imaginative capabilities.

Parents can help their young children learn from pictures each time they take a selfie. You can point out the connection between the picture on the screen and the current reality for your child, says Dr. Troseth. For instance, if you take a selfie of yourself and your child, look at it together and point out that you're sitting together and you've just taken a photo that shows you sitting together.

When your little one is scrolling through photos on your phone, you can remind them about taking the photo and talk to them about where they were and what they were doing.

You can also have simple conversations about the difference between pictures and video that show real people and events (e.g. family selfies and video chat with Grandma) and pictures that show fantasy, such as cartoons.

Finding a Screen-time Balance

The finding that children don't learn complex concepts earlier from screens doesn't come as a surprise to NYC-based pediatrician Kelly Fradin, MD. At the same time, she doesn't want parents to feel guilty about using screens functionally for young children. High-quality programs, such as those with songs and rhyming, can be educational and help develop media literacy and cognitive skills.

"Video-chatting with a family member and 'plugging' a child in while you accomplish a necessary task like meal prep or a work call is fine," Dr. Fradin says. However, she warns parents to be aware of marketing ploys. "Don't think your child needs to spend time learning their ABCs from an app. Many toys—and even toothbrushes—are WiFi-enabled. I'd be critical when considering the costs and benefits of these 'smart' additions."

Kelly Fradin, MD

Don't think your child needs to spend time learning their ABCs from an app. I'd be critical when considering the costs and benefits of these 'smart' additions.

— Kelly Fradin, MD

Reading, talking, and singing to your toddler are all simple ways to boost their learning. "Allowing toddlers to participate in household chores like meal-prep or laundry can be a rich learning and sensory experience," Dr. Fradin says. "Counting snacks and describing colors, shapes, and positions (first, on, in, etc.) are other fun, free, and easy activities."

She encourages parents to remember that even when something doesn't look "educational"—such as a child lining up cars, building with blocks, or running around in circles—free play holds substantial benefits both for education and for children's self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. 

What This Means For You

In our digital society, your child is bound to be exposed to screens. If you give your toddler screen time, focus on apps that combine education with interactive play, like ABC Mouse, Monkey Preschool Lunchbox, and Toca Doctor. It's important to remember that even though screen time is fine in moderation, kids also need real, human interaction for their development. Consult your child's pediatrician for advice and support if you have any concerns about your toddler's development

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Media and young minds. Pediatrics. 2016 Nov. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2591

  2. Russo Johnson C, Flores I, Troseth GL. Do young children of the “selfie generation” understand digital photos as representations?. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies. 2021;3(4). doi:10.1002/hbe2.287

  3. DeLoache JS, Burns NM. Early understanding of the representational function of pictures. Cognition. 1994;52(2). doi:10.1016/0010-0277(94)90063-9

  4. Kucirkova N, Radesky J. Digital media and young children’s learning. Education and New Technologies. Published online December 13, 2017:15-32. doi:10.4324/9781315644851-2

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.